U-T San Diego
February 20, 2013
by Gary Warth

ENCINITAS, Calif. — A nonprofit law firm announced Wednesday that it has filed a lawsuit against the Encinitas Union School District over a district yoga program that the plaintiffs argue is a form of religious indoctrination.

The lawsuit was filed by the National Center for Law & Policy on behalf of Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock and their two children, who attend school in the elementary district.

Dean Broyles, the attorney who runs the center, said the lawsuit doesn’t seek money from the district, but demands that it stop the yoga program, which he argues is based on religion and is a violation of the California constitution’s religious freedom provisions.

“We’re just asking them to comply with the law,” Broyles said in a phone interview Wednesday.

The suit also claims the district is failing to follow the state education code’s requirement to provide students with 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days.

The Encinitas school district introduced yoga at half of its campuses last year after receiving a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, an Encinitas-based nonprofit that promotes childhood health and wellness through Ashtanga Yoga.

The program expanded to all nine EUSD schools after the winter break. The grant is also supposed to fund a three-year study of the effect of yoga on students.

Some parents have said they oppose the program because Ashtanga Yoga is rooted in Hinduism, but many parents and district officials say the yoga lessons being taught in the district are just exercise and any religious elements have been stripped out.

“It’s not religious,” EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird said Wednesday. “To make something religious, you have to teach the religious doctrine and instruct the religious beliefs. You have to make the tie to the religion. Frankly, we’re not doing that.”

Broyles, however, argues that the practice of yoga cannot be separated from its religious roots. In the lawsuit, he argues that even if the practice is stripped of its spiritual language and instruction, yoga still would promote Hinduism.

The lawsuit quotes Sri Pattabhi Jois, considered the father of Ashtanga Yoga, as saying: “The reason we do yoga is to become one with God and to realize Him in our hearts.”

In a news release from last year, Broyles also quoted Jois as saying, “Yoga means knowing God inside you. But using it only for physical practice is no good, of no use.”

Encinitas attorney David Peck, who has offered to represent the district pro bono in the suit, called Broyle’s argument “ridiculous.”

“Mr. Broyles is arguing that a person can engage in religion unintentionally, simply by posing one’s body in certain positions,” he said, referring to yoga as “simply stretching by another name.”

Peck said he will intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of students who want yoga to continue in their schools.

The lawsuit also claims the district is violating a state requirement to provide 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days. One of the Sedlock children is missing 40 minutes and another 60 minutes from the required time, Broyles said.

Baird disagreed and said he had talked to the principal at one of the children’s school Wednesday and confirmed the child was receiving 200 minutes of yoga-free physical education every 10 days.

Yoga is offered as either part of the 200 minutes of required PE time or in addition to the required time, depending on the school, Baird said. While some students who do not want to take yoga have other options, Baird said alternatives may not be available at every school.

But that does not mean the district is violating the law, he said, because the required 200 minutes still were offered, whether or not students wanted to participate.

Broyles said the district is violating the education code because it should not count an illegal component as part of the physical education component.

The controversy has attracted national media attention in the past few months, but Baird said he was surprised that the lawsuit was filed.

“We had worked out arrangements with some families and thought everybody was happy with the solutions we had in place,” he said.

Scott Himelstein, director for the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego, is working with the Jois Foundation to study the effects of yoga on students over the next three years.

“There is a lot of data on the benefits of yoga in general as a health and wellness program on kids,” he said. “But to date there’s not been a study about these interventions in an entire district.”

Himelstein said the center will study health indicators such as blood pressure in students participating in yoga. The study also will look at whether yoga makes students more engaged, improves tests scores and leads to better attendance, he said.

The study will not be looking at the students’ religious beliefs, he said.

“It’s not part of the practice we’re observing,” he said. “The study design itself is not measuring any religious aspect. Nor would it be appropriate to do so.”